Calaveras Skull

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In the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the Calaveras skull was a human skull believed by many to be evidence of Pliocene Man in North America. Initially, it was dated to the Pliocene era, yet after testing, the date was found to be much younger. Local people who were involved in creating the hoax years later helped begin to clear up some of the mystery and confusion that surrounded the skull.

The Calaveras Skull, from William Henry Holmes' preliminary debunking of it. [1]


The Calaveras Skull allegedly originated out of a mining camp in Calaveras County, CA. It was passed around for a time and ended up in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.The provenance of the Calaveras Skull is one of the aspects of the Calaveras skull that is debated and still not definitively known. There are a few main trails of ownership that seem to be the most widely accepted.

Timeline One

The first story starts February 25, 1866 when workers for James Mattison removed a skull from a mining shaft at Angel's Camp in Bald Mountain, Calaveras County, CA. The skull was said to be found 130 feet below the surface and beneath a layer of lava. These miners then gave the skull to R. C. Scribner who was a merchant and agent for Wells, Fargo and Company at Angel’s Camp. Scribner then passed the skull on to William Jones, a physician at Murphy’s camp, who, upon receiving the skull, notified J D Whitney, the State Geologist of California and a Professor of geology at Harvard University. The skull was encrusted with sediment so Whitney cleaned the skull within the lab there with the help of Jefferies Wyman a comparative anatomist at Harvard. Whitney announced the discovery on July 16, 1866 at a meeting of the California Academy of Science [2]

Timeline Two

The second story follows along the same timeline and starts sometime in 1865 with E. H. Schaeffle from Murphy's, CA. In 1901 he wrote to Putnam who, at the time, was at Angel's Camp restudying the skull's origin. Schaeffle claimed that in 1865 there were a number of Indian skulls that were being found during a dig the company did at a spring in Salt Springs Valley. One of these skulls supposedly went to Dr. James Kelley. Kelley had the skull in office on the Cap Hanford Lumber Yard for a time. This skull was black from the black earth that it was dug from. The skull disappeared from Kelley's office and eventually resurfaced in the possession of R. C. Scribner. In this timeline Scribner stole the skull and sent it to William Jones with the story of James Mattison finding it at Bald Hill. Jones then held onto the skull along with others that were found while mining until J D Whitney took the skull from the rest. Whitney wanted to look in the shaft it was supposedly found in and do further research because he believed the story that Jones was told and that the skull was proof of early humankind in North America.

Those in support and against the story of the Calaveras Skull

Supporters of Skull story

During this time there were clearly a number of people who had faith in the story of the Calaveras skull. Most notably were Josiah Whitney and Frederic Ward Putnam. Josiah Whitney believed that the skull had been found by a miner, James Mattison, and was evidence of Pliocene Man in North America [3] Frederic Ward Putnam believed the skull was genuine and represented the oldest known record of humankind in America. [3]

Other notable people who believed the skull was truly evidence of the earliest North American Human remains were William H Dall, W H Holmes in 1899, J. C. Merriam, and Thomas Wilson. William H Dall examined the Calaveras skull story and believed that there were enough scientists who believed the information to be sufficient and saw no reason to doubt the origin[4] In 1899 William Henry Holmes had reviewed the information that was in circulation within the scientific community on both the skull and other evidence for humankind in California and saw no reason to doubt the validity[5] J . C. Merriam was sympathetic to Whitney and Putnam yet was still skeptic and wanted more proof through a study on the gravel from the mine the skull was found in which[3] Thomas Wilson questioned the validity of the claim that the skull had been planted in the mine[6]

There was and still is a small number of conservative Christians who use the story of the skull to support anti-evolutionary beliefs[7]There are some extremely conservative Christians that use the Calaveras skull as evidence that mankind has existed for an extended period of time unchanged by evolution. [8]


Although many were in belief that the skull was in fact evidence of remains that dated to the Pliocene there were those who were skeptical of the information. There were people from all walks of life that found something that made them think that there was at least something off about the story if not believe that it was entirely false.

A few persons that were members of the scientific community at the time that were against the stories that were told about the Calaveras skull were William Phipps Blake, G.J.M.E. d’Aquin GF Becker and in 1901 William Henry Holmes. W. P. Blake, an American geologist, mining consultant, and educator, believed that the skull showed similarities to and likely was from an Indian burial instead of an ancient fossil[3]. GJME d’Aquin, who worked with Putnam within the department of Anthropology at the University of California stated in a quarterly report that he believed that the skull presented features that did not align with the rest of the known evidence for early humankind [3] GF Baker a member of the US Geological Survey team, stated that he thought that the skull was planted in the mine but believed that the skull was fossilized evidence of early humankind in California[3] And in 1901 W. H. Holmes, while re-evaluating the known evidence for human remains within auriferous gravels in California, determined that the skull did not share the characteristics, conditions or associations that were known and agreed upon within the scientific community.[9]

There were even people who were outside of the scientific community that believed that the story was lacking. Bret Harte, multiple California papers, a number of Calaveras County locals, and employees at Murphy’s Camp. Bret Harte was a poet who ridiculed the find and believed it was a hoax [3]. There were also a number of different newspapers that reported about the Calaveras skull as a hoax. Two notable examples of these papers come from the The Calaveras Prospect, a newspaper from the mining camp and the Evening Star, a paper from Washington, DC. The Calaveras Prospect published an article on September 14, 1901 about Putnam coming to re-investigate the mine that was titled "That Calaveras Skull Again-Scientists Still Investigating the Old Fraud."[3] [10] The Evening Star reported on December 3,1898 that an anonymous informant told a reporter that the skull came from Salt Springs about 12 miles from Angel's Camp and was placed in the mine as a prank on Mattison and Whitney. [3] There were also a number of locals and employees for James Mattison that had multiple stories of locals who claimed that the skull was a prank that they played on their boss and his friends. [3] One of these locals, E. H. Schaeffle, wrote to putnam explaining that he was involved in the hoax and that the skull that was originally planted in the mine was blackened by the dirt that it came from instead of stained red, white, or blue like what was actually within the mine shaft[3]

Pseudo-archaeological Narrative

J D Whitney and later F Ward Putnam believed that the skull was evidence of the earliest human fossil in North America. Whitney believed the skull to be that of a Pliocene age (add link) despite many locals involved in the mining operation were aware that the skull was a hoax and was a part of a prank. However the belief in the validity of the skull was shared by many in the scientific community and after Whitney's announcement July 16 1899 [11] fueled much scientific literature as well as media and religious-oriented publications. [3] There are still many who believe the story of the skull despite evidence that is a hoax.

When Putnam went back to re-research the origin of the skull it was uncovered that there may have been two different skulls involved in this hoax. there was one that was a skull that was black, having been dyed by the soil it was removed from, that Schaeffle claimed was from the Salt Springs Valley, however the skull that was studied at Harvard by Whitney and later tested by others was white and carbonate-encrusted [12] There was also a radiocarbon analysis using both conventional decay and accelerator mass spectrometry done on the skull that revealed the age to be less than 1000 years old.

Archaeological Perspective

Archaeology has a goal to scientifically study human culture through the documentation and analysis of material culture. Material culture consists of physical remains and environmental data, in which include architecture, artifacts, human remains, and landscapes. In order for anthropologists to properly analyze this material in a scientific manner the context that the artifacts are found in is vital. It is this context that gives the researcher the data that allows them to gain insight into the culture that the artifact existed within.

The Calaveras Skull was never examined in situ by an expert. An archaeologist never had the chance to analyze or collect accurate and uncontaminated data. The skull was removed from the site by a miner who was not following archaeological procedures and was then passed through a number of owners before anyone began investigating the piece. From the point that the skull was allegedly discovered the data was corrupted.

The information continues to become less credible as the provenance for the skull becomes more complex. With each alleged owner the skull gets further and further from the context that it was found in and the data becomes based more in secondary sources. Within science anecdotes do not equate to reliable data. This is extremely clear when, upon review, it was revealed that the skull that scientists were analyzing in 1900s did not match the description of the skull that was studied in 1866. With two skulls any data that was collected becomes obsolete. There is no longer evidence that the research that had been done on the Calaveras skull was done on the skull that had been removed from the mine. This is a major inconsistency in the data and raises a number of questions about the legitimacy of the Calaveras skull.

More clues that the Calaveras skull was not an archaeological discovery of a Pliocene age skeleton include multiple locals admitting that the skull was a hoax, similarities to known remains of Indigenous peoples fossil remains also found in the area, inconsistencies in the features that were associated with skeletal features at that stage of evolution. Many of these clues come together and with the principle of Occam's razor make the story that the Calaveras Skull is evidence of early human in North America highly unlikely.


  1. 1899 Preliminary Revision of the Evidence Relating to Auriferous Gravel Man in California, First paper. American Anthropologist 1:107-121.
  2. Whitney, J. D. 1867 Notice of a Human Skull Recently Taken From a Shaft Near Angels, Calaveras County. Proceed. Acad. Sci. 3:277-278. Also, Amer. Jour. Sci. 43:265-267. 1880 The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California. Memoirs Mus. Comp. Zool. at Harvard Coll. Mem. 6(No. 1):267-273.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Dexter, Ralph W. “Historical Aspects of the Calaveras Skull Controversy.” American Antiquity, vol. 51, no. 02, 1986, pp. 365–369., doi:10.2307/279949
  4. Dall, W. H.1899 The Calaveras Skull. Proceed Acad. Nat. Sci. of Phila. for 1899 pp 2-4
  5. Holmes, W. H. 1899 Preliminary Revision of the Evidence Relating to Auriferous Gravel Man in California. Amer. Anthrop n.s. 1:107-121, 614-645.
  6. Wilson, Thomas 1899 The Beginning of the Science of Prehistoric Anthropology. Proceed. Amer. Assoc. Advanc. of Sci. 48: 309-353.
  7. Calaveras skull.” Calaveras skull - CreationWiki, the encyclopedia of creation science,
  8. Brown, Walt . In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood (8th Edition). 8th edition ed., Center for Scientific Creation, 2008
  9. 1901 Review of the Evidence Relating to Auriferous Gravel Man in California. Annual Rept. Smiths. I for 1899
  10. “That Calaveras Skull Again-Scientists Still Investigating the Old Fraud.” The Calaveras Prospect, 14 Sept. 1901
  12. dexter 1986:367-368